A few short weeks ago, Congress passed a bill to ensure that the health fund supporting the first responders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks never runs out of money. Unfortunately, what should have been a no-brainer only came about after contentious debate, the intervention of entertainer and activist Jon Stewart, and participation by several first responders who were literally on death’s door.
How did we get here? On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the fall of New York City’s Twin Towers, thousands of responders flooded into Ground Zero to help rescue people and search for survivors. Tens of thousands more heroes joined them on what came to be known as “The Pile,” working for the next nine months to sort through the debris for victims’ remains, evidence and personal belongings as part of the Ground Zero cleanup.
Police officers, firefighters, emergency response personnel, city employees, construction workers and volunteers all answered the call to help and to serve, armed with assurances from city and federal officials that the air was safe to breathe as they worked tirelessly for long days, nights and months.
But as the world came to know, those assurances, made by former EPA Chief Christine Todd Whitman among others, were dead wrong. In the ensuing 18 years, thousands of selfless Ground Zero responders have developed a staggering array of chronic and terminal illnesses, a direct consequence of their exposure to the never-before-seen toxic stew of the pulverized contents of the World Trade Center — including concrete, glass, carpet fibers, computer monitors and other office equipment — incinerated by the benzene and jet fuel of the 747s and atomized by the pancaking collapse of the 110-story Twin Towers.
Yet, when they asked for help in their time of need, they were left out in the cold by those in power. As a result, more than 10,000 responders sued the City of New York and its contractors to recover for their numerous injuries including respiratory ailments and cancer. That lawsuit became the most complex mass tort in U.S. history.
Although Congress had awarded the city $1 billion in FEMA funds for claims arising out of 9/11 and the cleanup, the city spent eight years and some $200 million of those funds fighting against the claims of the very Ground Zero responders who had answered their city’s and nation’s call, only to finally reach a settlement in 2010.
At the same time, those Ground Zero responders were fighting to enact the 9/11 James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, which finally passed days after the settlement was finalized. The Zadroga Act reopened the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund, which responders continued to fight to have renewed in 2015, 2017 and, most recently, just a few weeks ago, so that responders will be covered for their rest of their lives.
We are about to commemorate the 18th anniversary of one of the most fateful and horrific days in U.S. history. We need to tell the stories of what the Ground Zero responders did not just on 9/11, but on 9/12 and the days that followed. We need to remember that despite their heroic service, they had to suffer and endure in the years that followed. We need to continue to relate how their fight did not end when the cleanup did.
Because if we don’t, these men and women, who were mostly young and healthy and in the prime of their lives when they served, will die out, relegated to a few pages of a history book.
Even today, Ground Zero responders are suffering and dying from illnesses that result directly from their heroism on 9/11 and in the dark days that followed. Their humanity and commitment to community is an inspiration to us all. This is why what occurred on 9/12 still matters and why it must continue to matter.
Groner and Teicholz are authors of “9/12: The Epic Battle of the Ground Zero Responders.” Groner is the founder and CEO of SSAM Alternative Dispute Resolution and co-founder and former managing partner of Worby Groner Edelman, LLP. Teicholz is a journalist.